Alice at home

During my time in Europe I was frequently asked about Alice the dog. Since I draw her so often, people were genuinely concerned about her well-being while I was away. I am happy to report that whenever I’m out of town she is very lovingly cared for by a family, in a private home, in the company of other dogs. And while she gets plenty of exercise and love, she certainly doesn’t get sketched. So today I sketched her after our walk, using a new pencil that came in the Urban Sketchers Symposium goodie bag.

I always save all those art supplies — generously donated by sponsors — for when I get home and can try them out at my leisure. This year’s bag was particularly wonderful because it included a clutch pencil set from Art Alternatives as well as a tiny bottle of port wine!


Page layout for sketchers

After five wonderful weeks in France and Portugal, it’s great to be back in Montreal, seated at my computer, typing on a full keyboard with my trusty scanner at my side. I have piles of scanning to do but thought it would be interesting to go back a few weeks to write about a subject that came up in one of my workshops in Provence at the beginning of July.

After many days of sketching in quiet villages and crowded markets, near the end of the week I gave my workshop participants a goal: to complete three small sketches (within a two hour timeframe) that would visually convey our location  — the monastery in St. Remy where Van Gogh spent a year of his life. I sketched along with them, as well as circulated in the gardens to see how they were doing. The group did some amazing work in that short time. Fresh, lively sketches of the sunflower garden, the lavender field, the cloister and the monastery exterior. There’s no shortage of subjects in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, and sometimes having a time limit generates the freshest results.

The following day, someone asked me for some insight into how I had subdivided my own sketchbook page into rectangles. The question caught me off guard. As a graphic designer and graphic design teacher, dividing a page into columns is something I do without really thinking. Grid systems for text and image placement on a page are hard-wired in my brain. But when I looked at my sketchbook page, I realized that without even thinking about it, I had created a three-column/row grid on both pages, just like I teach my students to do in my Publication Design class.


Here is the same spread with a grid overlay on top.


So how did I create this? I started with the sketch of the sunflowers, first drawing a frame in pencil and then sketching the sunflowers (left) in ink and wash. From there I sketched the monastery exterior (top right). Next I looked for a subject that would fill a vertical space, and found that in the cloister arches (second from left) and finally finished the spread with a horizontal sketch of the lavender field. I could have also filled that space with two or three smaller sketches to balance the larger one at the top.

If you are thinking of trying this on a page in your sketchbook, a good way to start might be to draw the frames in advance in pencil, and then decide what to fill them with. My sketchbook is square so the three-column grid works well, but your sketchbook may have another format, so feel free to experiment with different sized frames.

And if you are interested in seeing sketchbooks by other artists who create interesting page designs (and often incorporate writing too), have a look at Brenda Swenson’s journals, Liz Steel’s sketchbooks, and Jean Mackay’s nature journals.


Porto sketches

The Urban Sketchers Symposium in Porto ended on Saturday and now I’m in Lisbon, relaxing for a few days and then finally heading home.

Before I write about Porto, I want to apologize to everyone who sent comments to me during my European travels. Since this was mostly a working holiday, I didn’t have much time to respond. Besides sketching all day and walking up countless stairs and hills, there were often evening social events, which left little time for writing!

I will soon write another post about my workshops at the symposium, but thought I’d share some of the sketches I did leading up to the event itself.

The first one is from the waterfront in Porto, looking towards the port houses in Gaia. I sat down on the ground to sketch this one, and what remains with me almost as much as this sight was the sound. I’ll never forget the a cappella group (beautiful young singers, all cloaked in black) standing nearby and singing to a crowd of spectators.

The rest of the sketches are from my workshop location — a labyrinth of alleys painted bright colours, bathed in light and shadow, and full of Portuguese neighbourhood life. My head is still spinning from this magical place and I want to write more about the symposium and the city, but it’s hard to do that without a keyboard. Lots more to come when I arrive home!!

Porto’s narrow spaces

After a much needed few days rest in Strasbourg, I’ve arrived in Porto. Wow, what a city! It took a good walk around the city to fully understand how hilly it is here. I spent the day sketching the narrow spaces, looking up and down lanes and trying to get a sense of the place.

My workshop at the Urban Sketchers Symposium is about colour, light and shadow in these narrow spaces, so you can understand my disappointment when my first morning was overcast. Looking up at the Escadas do Codecal and the supports of the Ponte Luis I overhead, I drew the narrowing grey stairs, waiting and hoping for the clouds to part.

After walking across the bridge and having a quick bite, the sun came out so I returned to the staircase and drew the plunging view down to the Douro River.

When I travel I always hope for a room with a view, and in Porto I have one of the best — a terraced garden with pink buildings at the top. In the afternoon I sketched a quick one before heading out again into the streets, to eat my first Pastel de Nata and then sketch some more.

The last one of the day was one looking down Rua de Fabrica in the Aliados neighbourhood. I think my umbrellas are a little too high in the sketch but the perspective is REALLY hard here. I have to forget everything I learned from Stephanie Bower here and draw by intuition alone. There are just too many vanishing points to keep track of!

I’ve started seeing sketchers all over the place — hidden in corners, sitting on little folding stools. It’s going to be an exciting week in Porto!

And even though I was mostly resting (and shopping) in Strasbourg, here’s the quick one I sketched on Place Kleber.

Workshop in Provence, group two

I’m on the train headed up to Alsace for a few days before making my way to Portugal. Sadly, my two outstanding weeks in Provence with French Escapade are over.

Since the second week of teaching (and the locations) was basically a repetition of the first, I thought I’d post some highlights from my student’s sketchbooks. No colour correction on these unfortunately, but as you’ll see, again, a very talented group!

A few of my demos:

As you can see, we packed a lot into our fabulous week, but we couldn’t have done it without our guides Jackie and Marie, who made teaching this group so easy because they so thoughtfully took care of everything else.

Jardin de Petrarque

There’s a reason this Provençal town is called Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. This fountain is a spring, the source of the Sorgue River which flows out of the mountain, bubbling and gushing it’s way through the town. You can read on Wikipedia, like I did, about how much water flows from this biggest spring in France, but what no photo or website prepares you for is the sound of the rushing water. It is at times deafening. I can hear it outside my window when I wake up in the morning because a stream runs right through our hotel. I ate dinner last night at a restaurant next to the river and could hardly hear the waiter because of the waterfalls below our table. It’s also what makes Petrarch garden so special and why I’ve spent so much time there these past two days.

The poet Petrarch lived and wrote in this town in the 14th century, so there are many things named after him, including our hotel. There’s also a small museum and a splendid garden with many shady spots for painting the rushing water. Yesterday I sketched but it was so peaceful I came back today. In three or four hours I churned (no pun intended) out three quarter sheet paintings from different spots in the park.

The first one was from a spot where I could see the blue damsel flies landing on the reeds in the shallow pools of water, which is absolutely clear and an unearthly shade of green.

The second one was looking at the museum which was supposed to open in the afternoon but never did. Glad that man dipped his feet in the water at the right time!

And the final quick one was looking upstream at the river. I set my easel up in the shade of a wide fig tree and enjoyed the cold breezes coming off the water as I painted.

Provence workshop day six: the town square

On our final day of this workshop we stayed in our home base of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. I’d love to go into more detail about the village but that will come at a later date when I have a keyboard to type on.

The town square was a complex subject with lots of activity, but after six days of sketching, I think people were up for the challenge.

It’s a busy place in the morning but the square is shaded all day by huge plane trees. There’s no sense of urgency if the location is comfortable and out of the hot sun, so people took their time drawing the scene.

Our final gathering in the evening started with a little vernissage of the work produced during the week. There’s something to be said for having a whole week to sketch.

Thanks again to our amazing guide Natalia from French Escapade and to all my students for working so hard! Now I have a few days off and then I’ll do this all over again next week.